Gusfield presents the short, brutal life of “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (1902 –1936), born Vincent Gebardi, a gifted athlete who became notorious as Al Capone’s deadliest lieutenant and putative organizer of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929.
In a parallel narrative, the author charts the dissolute history of Louise Rolfe, an archetypical jazz-baby flapper who, when liquored up behind the wheel, would prove nearly as fatal as her eventual paramour McGurn. Gusfield structures the book as the tale of the young lover’s ill-starred romance, but the story is heavily weighted toward McGurn, whose natural toughness, intelligence and physical grace quickly elevated him in the ranks of the Capone organization, where he earned a reputation as a meticulous planner and devastatingly effective assassin. Gusfield provides a lively, detailed history of gangland Chicago in the 1920s, deftly parsing the intricate chains of betrayal and murder that drove the city’s bootlegging trade and limning the era’s swinging style and heat. The author perhaps overly idealizes McGurn, endlessly praising his boyish good looks, athletic gifts, taciturn implacability and ruthless efficiency—a climactic passage in which McGurn’s dream of playing professional golf decisively collapses is rendered with the gravitas of Greek tragedy. Rolfe, portrayed here as essentially a spoiled, drunken nitwit, never resonates as a compelling character in her own right, making Gusfield’s emphasis on their short-lived and unremarkable romance puzzling and giving his otherwise cleanly propulsive account a somewhat lopsided shape. McGurn would never have stood for such sloppiness.
Still, an engrossing look inside Al Capone’s murderous ranks and a chilling examination of a natural born killer.